A home, for the homeless, for the holidays

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With the approach of festivities, and a chill in the air outdoors, our thoughts at this time of year often turn to the less fortunate. Many of us open our checkbook or volunteer at a soup kitchen—fine ways to do a good turn. In Los Angeles, a group of budding builders have hit upon another way to help one down-and-out segment in particular: the homeless. This fall, some architectural students rolled up their sleeves to design and build creative temporary shelters on a limited budget, using pallets, plywood panels, truck camper shells, and other found materials. And that was just the start.

“Architecture isn’t just for those who can afford it,” one of the students told the USC News. “It can be something that creates social good and changes the way people live their lives.”

Moreover, their experience proved that innovation doesn’t always mean leveraging the latest technology. Sometimes it means relying on human ingenuity and making the most of what you’ve got.

Growing crisis, unique solutions

An estimated 47,000 people are now homeless in Los Angeles County. Shelters are full, with waiting lists up to two years long.

The crisis motivated a new collaboration between the University of Southern California School of Architecture and Madworkshop, an architectural education nonprofit. The result is USC’s Homeless Studio, a hands-on course that wrapped up its inaugural semester last week. In it, eleven fourth-year students didn’t just meet with homeless residents, activists, architects and city officials to gain perspective on the complex problem; they also drew up plans, scavenged for scrap wood, swung hammers, and produced their own real-world shelters.

“This is not a typical course,” said Sofia Borges, the USC professor and acting Madworkshop director who co-taught Homeless Studio with fellow faculty member R. Scott Mitchell. “Normally, architecture students don’t build anything, let alone something for a marginalized population.”

The course featured three distinct phases. In the first, the students had two weeks to design and fabricate five mobile and expandable sleeping quarters, with a total budget of $500. The structures aimed to fulfill basic needs: security, privacy, shelter from the elements, and portability.

For example, students built one shelter by modifying a shopping cart: A wooden platform stashed in the bottom can fold out to create a space to sleep on; poles fold out of the main basket and lock in place to create a frame over which a tarp can be draped. (See image below.)

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

Another shelter is a lightweight box towed by bike. The students welded a steel frame on top of a wooden platform, covered it with fiberglass coating, and rigged the lid with expandable trusses to make a roof. They attached casters on the bottom, so the unit rolls. (See image below.)

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

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Transformable apartments maximize limited space

Imagine rearranging your living space so you can throw a dinner party for 20 of your friends in the same room where you normally sleep. Or transforming your cozy home office into an elaborate home theater for family movie night. And doing all of that with just the wave of your hand or the sound of your voice.       

The home or apartment unit you are living in today, with defined rooms, static walls and immovable appliances, may soon become a thing of the past. Innovative urban planning experts and researchers are designing and prototyping new “transformable” units that will maximize limited square-footage and allow people to easily personalize their space layouts for their changing needs. Transformable units could soon become popular in cities that are facing affordable housing crises and “brain drain” because residential square footage is limited and far too expensive for working class families and young prospective talent.

In many cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami the limited inventory of available residential units are either the most expensive and spacious units or the units that are too compact to accommodate the needs of the people who work and live in town. But there are innovative researchers who believe that size isn’t everything and that the square footage of a residential unit shouldn’t determine its usefulness or value. What if the appeal of a residential unit had nothing to do with the actual size of that unit, but rather the flexibility that space could offer?

Apartment transformations “out of the box”

The Changing Cities team at MIT Media Lab is currently working on a project called CityHome that might just meet that urgent need for housing by helping residents make the most out of the space they can actually afford. CityHome is a slick mechanical box that is roughly the size of a closet and sits inside an apartment. The box stores everything from a bed and dining room table to a cooking range, kitchen surface and closet for extra storage. The CityHome contains all the essential components from various rooms in a traditional apartment unit, all in a single cube.

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